The Pirate’s Half Marathon is one of the most difficult in Joburg. I had never completed the race prior to this year, and interestingly, despite being one of the most famous hills in Joburg I had never run up Northcliff Hill, the feature that earns the race its place.
I lined up at the start with Kirsten and after ducking and diving through people at the congested start we settled into a rhythm. We had an early discussion about the raw energy at the start line for a race, although I did mention that I was not particularly nervous for this half marathon since it would only be my fourth longest run of that week.
Although the serious work really begins after the 9-km mark the race throws out some climbs early on to soften the legs. Between 1.2 and 3.5 km the route featured two climbs with a short respite between them that already totalled to around 100 metres of ascent. Towards the top of the second climb we passed Lindsey and Campbell, who had arrived early to run 12 km before the race. We then descended for most of the next 3 km, except for the odd sharp ascent, loosing all the elevation we had gained in the early climbs. The climb from that point to the 9-km mark continued to sap the legs of strength, and then after 9 km we took a sharp left turn and the real work began.
The first section of the ascent was an extremely steep climb that was the steepest I have faced in Joburg. Early in the race Kirsten and I had discussed the fact that even at our pace there would be runners walking that climb, but I stated that walking would not be an option for us. We very slowly climbed to the top and then proceeded to wind our way around the hill, slowly loosing some of our elevation. A sharp turn, this time to the right, initiated the second phase of the climb. We climbed our way to the high point of the race at 13.5 km, and there we were greeted with a water table before commencing our descent.
The Pick n Pay Marathon is one of the bigger marathons in Joburg. Falling the day after Campbell’s birthday run at the Bronkhorstspruit 32 km, I entered to run the half marathon. As the end to a big week of training, and a faster-than-planned race the previous day I agreed to run with Kirsten at an easy pace.
We set off with Lindsey and Justin, who were running the marathon together, but we split up early in the race as we negotiated the huge number of people in the early going and Kirsten stopped to adjust one of his shoes. After crossing the N3 highway we started the first climb of the race and the crowd opened up enough for us to start setting our own pace. We fell into a comfortable pace and at the early kilometre markers I noted that for the second time in two days the markers were incorrect. Checking with Kirsten our watches agreed that the kilometre markers were falling 700 metres too far. At an average pace of 6:00 min/km that many people will run that inaccuracy in the distance markers would equate to people without GPS watches thinking that they were around 3.5 minutes behind schedule.
After missing my target at Narrabeen (race report here) I decided that I needed another goal race in the early part of the year to have a nearby focus for my training. I decided to target a half marathon since it is a distance that requires minimal recovery time, and my existing PB was run at a pace only barely faster than my marathon PB. My PB of 1:28:11 dated back to November 2011, and was a firm (but not flat out) half marathon run as a confidence booster prior to the PE City Marathon where I set my marathon PB. The last time I had run a flat out half marathon was back in August 2009, when I had broken the 90-minute barrier for the first time. Simply improving on my PB was never going to be difficult so I decided to set myself a more challenging target: I wanted to complete the half marathon at a pace better than 4:00 min/km, requiring a finishing time inside 1:24:24.
Looking at my training plan I started by picking the weekend that could best fit a fast half marathon, deciding upon the first weekend of February. I then looked at the available options for that weekend, and had two choices: the McCarthy Half Marathon in Pretoria on the Saturday or the Alberton City Half Marathon to the south of Joburg on the Sunday. The Alberton area is known for its lack of hills, and the race was written up as being fast and flat. But in the end I decided to run McCarthy, which involves more climbing but has a big turnout and a good vibe at the finish. Last year we had run McCarthy and then hung around until 1PM before leaving the park where the race finished. I discussed my plans with Kirsten and he agreed to come onboard to run with me on race day.
Two weeks prior to the race I went out to run a sub-32 minute 8 km time trial to build some confidence and test out my racing flats, which had not been out of the cupboard since the first half of last year. I completed the time trial in 31:15, and although I had needed to push quite hard to complete it I had run it faster than the target pace for my half marathon. Deciding to take the attempt quite seriously I opted to taper for the 5 days prior to race day. I had however run over 140 km the previous week and my legs weren’t feeling as fresh as I had hoped leading up to race day. I was fairly confident that I could achieve my target but I knew I couldn’t take it for granted and I knew it wouldn’t be easy.
On race day I drove through to the race early with Kirsten, we picked up our race numbers and then set off for a warmup of around 2.5 kilometres. We edged our way close to the start line and ended up with only 3-4 rows of people in front of us when the gun went off. We set off and I started squeezing through gaps and running around people. Despite our proximity to the start line I encountered more people to overtake than made sense, and realised that a considerable number of people had obviously started off to the side of the course in front of the start line and were merging in front of us. But after a few hundred metres we had cleared the traffic and started to settle into pace. We completed the first kilometre in 3:59 and were perfectly on target.
The Dis-Chem Half Marathon is the first half marathon in Johannesburg for the year, and it is a large event that easily reaches its 6000 entrant limit. With a 100-km race planned for the first weekend of the year I had marked off a 2-week rest period on my training plan for recovery, and therefore had not entered the race. However with my race at Narrabeen turning into a 50-km run (as per my race report here) I was back into training just 4 days later. I was interested in running at the Dis-Chem Half Marathon since it has a big field and a great vibe at the end but entries were well and truly sold out.
My initial thought was to drive to the race and run my own training run along a different course so that I could join in the festivities after the race. But on the Friday before the race I was able to arrange an entry from a friend at another running club as they knew someone who was unable to run. As part of the entry process you provide a target time that is used to seed all entrants. As a result I ended up standing behind the start line of the Dis-Chem Half Marathon with thousands of people in front of me from my position as an E-seeded entrant (with only F-seeded runners further back), and my race bib contained my race number and name in clear bold capital letters. My name for this particular race happened to be SUSAN.
The race started and we stood still for a while. Then eventually we started to walk. Then we started to run. Then we slowed to a walk. Then we started to run. Then we slowed to a walk. And then we finally managed to run all the way across the start line and only 21.1 km remained. I was unsure how my legs had recovered from the race the previous week so I planned to set out on pace to run a 1:40 and then speed up if my legs were feeling good.
The first weekend in November looked like being a very difficult race selection decision: on one side was the Golden Gate Half Marathon in the picturesque area of Clarens while on the other side was the God’s Window Half Marathon running alongside the scenic Blyde River Canyon and its famed God’s Window lookout point. Fortunately I discovered a 3-day trail race through the Golden Gate Highlands National Park during the last weekend in November, and could therefore run both areas of the country just 3 weeks apart.
Therefore I found myself on the first Friday in November driving 4.5 hours from Joburg to the small town of Graskop with Fiona, who had decided that a half marathon with a difficulty rating of 4 out of 5 was a good way to restart some serious training. We met other friends Lindsey and Hayley (who had driven down separately with their 4-month old daughter Ella) in Graskop and went for dinner at a Portuguese restaurant, including what I would like to claim as a couple of nice glasses of wine (but was unfortunately fairly cheap and extremely average). During dinner I discussed plans for the race with Lindsey, and stated that I planned to run a time of 1:40.
After a pre-race meal of a muffin we walked the 600 metres from our hotel to the starting area in the local caravan park. It turned out that the race serves as the Mpumalanga provincial championships for 10 km and the half marathon, and as such the race officials were being extremely strict on enforcing rules. After paying our entry we hung around near the start and were informed numerous times that all race numbers, ASA license numbers, and age category tags must either be sown on or attached by 4 (not 1, not 2 and not 3) pins. As we stood in the starting pen we were informed one last time about the number of pins that were expected before being set loose. It was a very pleasant temperature as we set off at 7AM but the predicted maximum in the low-30’s meant that the temperature was going to quickly rise.
After exiting town the route started to noticeably climb, and despite some brief respites we predominantly ran uphill. As we climbed Lindsey pointed out that every time he thought we couldn’t climb any more we would turn a corner and glimpse more uphill. Unfortunately along many parts of the route there were trees blocking out our views into the canyon, but there were still some stunning views where they did exist. At around the 7 km mark we glimpsed what was clearly the highest point on our route and agreed that it possibly marked the turnaround point for the out-and-back route. I hadn’t paid attention to my watch at all but Lindsey pointed out that we were on track for a time around 1:46 based on even pacing, although we would be running downhill for most of the second half. The stretch from the 8 km marker was a particularly tough climb and I pulled slightly ahead of Lindsey. As I reached the top of the climb I spotted the 10 km marker at the very top and realised what that meant…
Since the turnaround point needed to be just after the 10.5 km point to make up the 21.1 km required for a half marathon we were actually required to crest the hill and continue 500 metres down the other side of the hill before turning around and re-climbing to the top. As I turned around I checked that all was well with Lindsey and knew that he would catch me quickly on the descent. I re-crested the high point of the course and soon heard the pitter-patter of feet as Lindsey pulled up alongside me. After averaging 5:00 min/km for the first half we started knocking off the downhill kilometres at just above or just below 4:30 pace. In the last couple of kilometres I started noticing the heat but soon enough we ran into town, turned into the caravan park and crossed the finish line. Despite running the entire race purely by feel our finishing time ended up less than 10 seconds inside the 1:40 I had stated the previous night.
After relaxing under the shade of tree for a while we returned to the hotel, showered and then went for a great pancake brunch and a chilled glass of white wine. In the afternoon Lindsey and I took Ella and went to see some of the local sights while the ladies relaxed at the hotel. We did receive a number of interesting looks as people tried to understand the relationship of the two guys travelling around together with a baby. As a disclaimer I will point out that the below photos are from the sightseeing trip since I did not run the race with a camera, and only the first photo was taken at a lookout along the race route.
While some races are planned well in advance (I have already started filling in my race calendar for next year), others aren’t.
While sitting at the running club having a drink after time trial last Thursday a discussion started about the race at Irene on the weekend. I was asked whether I would be running, and not knowing any details had to confirm the distance (half marathon). We had already planned our run for Sunday, but the race was on Saturday and nothing else was on the calendar. Kirsten and I agreed that a 21 km run sounded like a nice way to kick off a Saturday, so we ended up at Irene Mall at 6AM for the start of the race.